It’s difficult to know what Charles Darwin would make of it, given that he wrote in his seminal Origin of the Species that the evolution of the eye by natural selection seemed “absurd at the highest degree”, but more recently scientists are saying that our ancient survival requirement for long-distance sight is being rendered redundant.
The theory is that human survival no longer requires us to keep an eye out for predators in the distance – the most challenging thing most of us have to do is try and battle our way down Oxford Street to find a Starbucks (and even then there’s an app for that). Moreover, given that we spend an increasing amount of time staring at screens – whether computers or smartphones – and less time outside, research in the Ophthalmology journal suggests that half of the world’s population could be short-sighted by 2050. That’s an increase from 34 per cent who currently struggle with seeing distances.
It looks, therefore, like the combination of these two factors will lead to a potentially irreversible change to the way that we use our eyes and the powers that they give us. The obsession with being ‘always on’ and ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) is not a new one, but it helps explain why we are spending so much time staring at screens.
And while we might not need our long distance eyesight to protect us from sabre-toothed tigers like our forebears, we do still require it to maintain some sort of concept of spatial awareness. It’s why there are texting lanes on pavements for pedestrians who are more focused on their phones than their journey – journeys that take twice us long while texting than when not. Anecdotally, people are said to have fallen onto train tracks because they have been more focused on texting than keeping aware of their surroundings.
A psychology professor at Western Washington University calls this obliviousness to the world whilst on the phone ‘inattentional blindness’. Ira Hyman conducted one of the first versions of cell phone distraction tests, asking passers-by if they had noticed a clown on a unicycle. Half of non-cell phone –using pedestrians saw the clown but only a quarter of people talking on a phone did.
It might seem paradoxical but the only way to solve this problem is with more tech – of course, we can put ‘look up’ signs on the road and warn people of the dangers they are about to face if they don’t un-glue their eyes from their screens, but the chances are they won’t see these. That’s why there are apps available that determine when someone using a phone is walking into an intersection and when they do, it momentarily locks the phone screen and flashes a warning to look up. Equally apps that only notify the user by vibrating when something genuinely interesting happens on their phone, with the intent that the user uses their phone less.
While these might help elicit behavioural change nothing short of a wholesale change to the way we work will stop the way our eyes are evolving (if those Darwinian scientists are to be believed). Anti-tech/screen day anyone?